Misty Mountains of East Africa


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Kilimanjaro rising behind the Chyulu Hills, Ukambani, Kenya. Photo taken from the Mombasa Highway during the December short rains.



Mount Kenya from the plane window, looking over the European-owned wheat farms of Laikipia


It is one of history’s bizarre anecdotes, that one of these two old volcanoes was once given away as a birthday present. But before I reveal how this happened, please take a look at the map. Head for the centre.


Here you will see that Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro and Kenya’s Mount Kenya lie pretty much on the same north-south axis, albeit a couple of hundred miles apart. In an earlier post about Denys Finch Hatton’s burial place in the Ngong Hills (to the left of Nairobi on the map) I quoted Karen Blixen’s description of how  one sunset, she and Denys had witnessed a simultaneous sighting of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. This must have been something to see, for these mountains can be frustratingly elusive when it comes to showing themselves. One moment you can be looking them full in the face; the next they have dissolved into a clear blue sky as if they were never there. You blink and wonder how this could have possibly happen. It is doubtless a quantum physics thing, but in the absence of more scientific explanations, the phenomenon anyway seems quite mystical. It is not surprising, then, that local people have long regarded these mountains as sacred places that may, from time to time, be visited by the Creator.

But to return to the mountainous birthday gift.

If you look again at the map you will see how the border between Kenya and Tanzania makes a sudden kink to encompass Kilimanjaro.  This daft piece of map-making is testimony of a tussle in colonial expansionism (Britain versus Germany) and the kind of queenly megalomania  that thought it perfectly reasonable to take possession of someone else’s mountain and then make a gift of it to a fellow monarch, a personage whom she rather despised even though he was a close relative.

I’m sure you will have guessed by now that we are talking of Queen Victoria  and Kaiser Wilhelm. One can only presume that someone who also called herself  the Empress of India would think nothing of the sharing out of stolen mountains. I dare say she thought it made up for the fact that she had bagged the territories now known as Kenya and Uganda when Wilhelm had wanted them too. Perhaps she also thought that giving Wilhelm the taller of the two would also help to placate him.  If she had stopped to consider the fact that Kilimanjaro was only a dormant volcano, she might have had second thoughts.  It was altogether too ominous a gift.

In the end the whole land-grabbing deal was  ratified in the Heligoland  Treaty of 1890, and the map-makers  then duly drew a line straight through the middle of Maasai territory coupled with the requisite detour round Kilimanjaro. They called one side British East Africa, and the other German East Africa. Meanwhile the locals, who comprised very many different ethnic communities, were largely unaware how far they had been scrambled, or indeed scrobbled, to borrow a term of dastardly rapine from John Masefield and The Box of Delights. They were soon to find out. On the British side it began with the setting up of forts along the proposed line of rail for the Uganda Railway. This 600-mile line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria would be the means by which the Empress of India would get her troops (mainly Indian ones) swiftly to the source of the Nile. Why she would ever need to do this will have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that this project was substantially dafter  than the giving of mountains as birthday presents. Even at the time people thought so. In Britain they called it  the Lunatic Line. In East Africa the invaded called it the Iron Snake.


Glimpse of Kilimanjaro on the flight from Zanzibar to Mombasa

© 2016 Tish Farrell



22 thoughts on “Misty Mountains of East Africa

  1. that was a history lesson; sometimes I’m ashamed to be a German; but actually Putin is the one, who divides a land, to get a part for his own… there was a comparison to Hitler in the media (my friends in West Ukraine had the term too) – but I think that’s not correct at all – history is a thing, always running forward…

    1. It’s not really nationality is it, Frizz? More about malevolent individuals, corporations, and factions – whether greedy businessmen or politicians they are always too adept at justifying their actions. We Brits like to think that everyone likes us, but our politicians, government functionaries and monarchs have done some dreadful things in their time.

  2. Trekking the Kilimanjaro trail is right there at the top in my wish list 🙂

    Thanks a lot for sharing the beautiful images and other info.

    Have a beautiful day, Tish 🙂

    1. Thank you for your good wishes, Sreejith. I think trekking up Kilimanjaro would be a wonderful thing to do. I wish I had done it. Good lungs are definitely called for, though I believe the local Chagga people run up there. Have a good day too.

  3. I learn a lot from you every time I visit.
    I have seen Kilimanjaro a few times on my way to Namanga and while at the Amboseli national park.
    Great post

    1. That’s really such a lovely comment. btw I’m not Kenyan, (I got the impression you thought I was), though lived there for 7 years. Live in Shropshire UK these days, though my head is often in Kenya as you may have noticed. A lot of my published fiction is based there; that is to say, based in my own particular version of your extraordinary country 🙂

      1. It was the most informative part of my whole life. A bit like doing six PhDs simultaneously. I was so very impressed by the Kenyans I met, and those who Graham worked with at NARL. Not so impressed by the politics, to say the very least (we were there in the ’90s up to 2000) and its dreadful effects on wananchi. Our stay also roused my interest in the effects of colonial fall-out, which in key areas of governance is still many African nations’ poisoned legacy (I feel). Made me question a lot about do-gooding aid, i.e. when it does not reflect local need, but is more about donor fads and commercial interests. And finally I learned so much about writing from reading so many brilliant Kenyan journalists – Wahome Mutahi (sadly no longer with us), John Githongo, Sam Kahiga and so many more. So a big thank you, Kenya!

      2. Wow!
        I don’t like the politicians, you can see that on my articles on politics.
        I think Aid ought to be reviewed or how it is disbursed to be done differently. I think it ends up in the wrong pockets or doing things for which it was never meant in the first place.
        Thanks for sharing and you are welcome again and this time we can have coffee together at one of the coffee houses in Nairobi

  4. So many of the problems of today, and yesterday, can be traced back to the colonials setting borders based on resources, with little consideration given to the areas’ populations. The photography in this post is beautiful, Trish, and the history fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Enjoyed the pictures very much… and of course, always a pleasure to get the historical background as well. Some of the antics of colonialism certainly seem strange in this era, and hard to justify. But I have the feeling that in another 100 years, many of the things we accept now, will seem no less strange…

    1. I’m sure you are right, Shimon. Mind you, there are a lot of things now that people think quite normal, but I find strange. Cell phones for one, though I can see they have their uses. But the problem with colonialism, the effects continue, while those who imposed the original conditions take absolutely no responsibility for the decades of mayhem that they have caused.

      1. What you say about colonialism is quite true. Unfortunately, in the light of history, we realize that even so, the colonialists may often be seen as enlightened and humane, compared to the affairs of nations before the colonial period. One of the few things that given me some optimism and hope through the study of history, is that it appears that human society has very slowly become a little more sensitive to human rights and dignity. It is a very slow process, of course. But historically, we can see some improvement.

  6. Nice pictures of the two giants! I have seen both but only been high up on Mount Kenya. That was a beautiful trip about 7 years ago – unfortunately I lost my photos from there.

  7. A bit of history there I wasn’t even I aware of myself, and I’m Kenyan. The birthday part. And you’ve got nice photos. You say Misty Mountains and I remember The Lord of the Rings, though, and Saruman the White of Isengard. Is where my mind goes.

  8. how amazing these pictures are! Mt.Kilimanjaro has always been a fascination ever since I learnt about it in Geography lessons in school…I’m even keener now after reading this snippet about its history.

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